Essays · Movies

The Success of ‘Three Billboards’ Depends on Who’s Doing the Talking

Martin McDonagh’s film may have cleaned up at the Golden Globes, but the numbers suggest a more diverse critical body wouldn’t have been so forgiving of its flaws.
By  · Published on January 9th, 2018

Martin McDonagh’s film may have cleaned up at the Golden Globes, but the numbers suggest a more diverse critical body wouldn’t have been so forgiving of its flaws.

Two days ago, in a turn of events that caught most award season pundits by surprise, Martin McDonagh‘s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri came away from the Golden Globes as the evening’s big winner. With awards for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Drama, Three Billboards has seemingly breathed new life into its Academy Award chances and bumped both Frances McDorman and Sam Rockwell up a notch in the eyes of voters. This was confirmed just a few hours ago, when it was announced that Three Billboards was nominated for nine BAFTA awards, tied for second-most behind only Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water.

Even with the typical caveats in place about these awards meaning more to the nominees than anyone else, the unexpected success of Three Billboards has been a point of frustration among the film’s detractors. As such, the combination of the Golden Globes wins and the BAFTA nominations has led to a second wave of analysis regarding the movie. In a lengthy and thoughtful article in BuzzFeed, Alison Willmore explored what she saw as a disconnect between McDonagh’s insightful takedown of “ingrained misogyny” and his inability to carry those insights over into issues of race. “Three Billboards is so sharp when it comes to depicting Mildred’s pain, and yet so clumsy when it comes to depicting the habitual racism of the place in which she lives,” Willmore wrote, “that it feels indicative of the terrible fallacy that we can only focus on one type of oppression at once.” In the end, Willmore points to McDonagh as a man “playing tourist” when it comes to issues of American racism.

And if Willmore sees the film’s “failures of intersectionality” as a reason to be skeptical about the success of Three Billboards, then others see this same failure of intersectionality echoed in the critics who write about it. In a piece for Yahoo! Movies UK, Hanna Flint took a closer look at the discussion surrounding the film and the critics who helped elevate it to its current position. “Many black and ethnic minority (BAME) critics and commentators have pointed out the problematic nature of the movie,” Flint wrote, “and have suggested its critical acclaim is indicative of the still heavily white-dominated field of film criticism.” In her piece, Flint quotes critics like Ira Madison, Gene Demby, and Zeba Blay, who suggest that part of the film’s success is the critical community’s inability to engage with issues of race. In other words, whether you love or hate Three Billboards, it is a film whose failings have not been pursued as rigorously by a predominantly white and male critical body.

What would the reception of Three Billboards look like, then, if the movie were examined from a less myopic perspective? In June 2017, Black Girl Nerds critic Valerie Complex put together a list of 90+ female film critics of color, each of whom writes about the entertainment industry in some capacity. Using this list as a reference point, I identified the 21 writers who offered their perspective on the film in the last few months, either as a full published review or a few thoughts shared on Twitter. Here’s the full breakdown of these writers and what they had to say:

First Last Is Three Billboards Good? Outlet
Angelica Jade Bastién NO Vulture
A.J. Han NO Mashable
Amma Marfo NO The Interrobang
Clara Mae NO Ms. En Scene
Candice Frederick NO Freelance
Corrina Antrobus YES BechdelTestFest
Emily Yoshida NO Vulture
Hanna Ines Flint YES UK Yahoo! Movies
Inkoo Kangst NO Slate
Jamie Righetti YES IndieWire
Jacqueline Coley YES RottenTomatoes
Jessica Kiang YES The Playlist
Karen Han YES /Film
Kristen Lopez NO Freelance
Krutika Mallikarjuna NO TVGuide
Mae Abdulbaki NO The Young Folks
Miriam Bale NO New York Magazine
Nancy Wang Yuen YES
Simran Hans NO The Guardian
Valerie Complex YES Black Girl Nerds
Yolanda Machado NO Freelance

There are two major takeaways to be had from this list, one obvious and one considerably less so. The first takeaway – which will likely only come as a surprise to people outside of film criticism – is that there is no uniformity in how these critics approached the film. Some critics loved the movie. Some hated it. Each approached the film from their own unique perspective and weighed the strengths and weaknesses in total. If Three Billboards keeps up its momentum leading into the Academy Awards and people claim its detractors are simply Social Justice Warriors itching for a fight, there’s your definitive proof otherwise. Film remains an utterly subjective art form, and any attempt to include a reductive narrative on why people do or do not like a particular title is as frustrating as it is factually incorrect.

The second takeaway, however, is vital. While it’s not inaccurate to say Three Billboard received mixed reviews from female film critics of color, the aggregate score of these reviews is still considerably lower than that of the RottenTomatoes scores. According to that site, 93% of film critics who saw Three Billboards gave the film a positive review; our smaller sample size, by comparison, comes in at a much, much lower 38%. That would align Three Billboards with such forgettable summer releases as Snatched – the Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn comedy – and Halle Berry’s Kidnap, not exactly the kind of company you’d expect for an Oscar contender. And while there are all kinds of red flags to throw out there about the reductive nature of RottenTomatoes or the danger of applying a binary score to a feature film, it’s safe to say that female critics of color were less enthused by the film’s lack of intersectionality than the critical community at large.

So while Three Billboards has incredible performances and arguably my favorite moment at the movies in 2017 – it takes place in an interrogation room, you’ll know it when you see it – there’s also a sense that McDonagh is not equipped to take the deeper dive needed to fully explore issues of gender and race in his movie. And it’s important that we recognize those criticisms as valid. To ignore diverse voices who disliked the film – to dismiss them out of hand as some form of reductive backlash – is to suggest that those voices are only valid when they happen to align with our tastes. Three Billboards may go down in history as a great film, but when so many diverse critics are saying a movie navigated its subject matter clumsily at best, maybe it’s time to admit there’s something there we just don’t see.


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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)